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Holy Balm - It’s You

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Artist: Holy Balm

Album: It’s You

Label: Not Not Fun

Review date: Oct. 18, 2012

Punk history is littered with musicians who didn’t know how to play their instruments. Guitar, primarily. In the case of DNA’s Arto Lindsay, it goes as deep as a lifelong refusal to play chords, relying instead on gnarled, gestural mashing. Applying that negative stance toward electronic music is altogether trickier. Who, apart from Rick Wakeman, performs the synthesizer? What exactly is there to be refused? Sloppy, impulsive synth lines rarely carry enough conviction to rise above themselves — there’s too much mediation, too much plasticity already. And you aren’t expected to know how to play the keyboard in the first place: you can just program the thing to sound as virtuosic or dumb as you like.

Recent years have seen many crossings between the worlds of rock and electronic music. The Sydney trio Holy Balm take a literal approach to bridging the gap, and come off as a synthpunk band that doesn’t know what specifically to say "no" to. They don’t attempt to find a middle ground between off-the-cuff D.I.Y. art punk and the steady rhythm of house music as much as they try to create a zone where scribbles and pulses coexist with no particular relation. Conceptually, it’s hard not to identify with their spontaneous, purposely naive approach, but the music doesn’t manage to figure itself out. While there are regular flashes of potential across their debut album, It’s You, the audience walks away from the experience with the sense that the band is at cross-purposes.

Avoiding traditional rock instruments, It’s You’s tracks preserve a sense of spontaneous, off-the-grid composition. The primitive synth-punk template Emma Ram, Jonathan Hochman and Anna John lay out on the album’s first track, a cover of Y Pants’ "Favorite Sweater," is constant throughout the album: a bulked-up, powerful kick drum, affectless female vocals, and sticky-fingered synth lines jostle around without the peaks and valleys of traditional songwriting, but are too hyperactive to settle into durable groove. Even a beat-driven number like "Phone Song" fights against its own 4/4 rhythm with cheap synth tones, embedding too-bright LEDs in a much-needed musical respite. It’s hard to appreciate brash, automatic experimentalism or sly structure when they’re drowning each other out.

There are traces here of ideas more fully developed by similar sounding artists: Xeno & Oaklander’s frigid sequencers; These Are Powers’ FX acid trails; Silk Flowers’ messy and ominous electro goth. Ultimately, It’s You has less in common with these tangential forebears than a language deprivation experiment: despite the current vogue for punky dance music, Holy Balm have devised an isolated language shot through with dry-as-dust drum programming and vocals that suggest a sleepwalking La Roux. There’s something feral and unpoliced about the way the band combines sounds into a wan, yet somehow stentorian tangle. It’s You is possessed of an unintended vagueness that highlights the shortcomings of letting a method stand in for a considered aesthetic.

By Brandon Bussolini

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